Using changes in diction to frame historical questions ≠ ‘culturomics’

I hope this blog will focus on recording specific puzzles, rather than debating method; this area of inquiry is really too young for claims about method to be more than speculative.

But Google released its ngram viewer in tandem with an article in Science that made fairly strong claims for a new discipline to be called culturomics, and strong claims about a whole new discipline have naturally been met with strong skepticism. So it’s impossible to avoid a few reflections on method.

I don’t expect that quantitative studies of word frequency will in the end amount to a new discipline — although who knows? The team that published in Science chose questions where quantitative analysis could, in itself, count as proof — for instance, questions about the changing frequency and duration of references to dates.

References to dates, 1900-2000, image by Zach Seward, 12/18/10.

I don’t want to disparage this approach; posing a new kind of question is significant — although, if it does create a new discipline, I hope the discipline will be called “N-grammatology,” in homage to Derrida.

But most of the questions that interest humanists can’t be converted quite this directly into questions about the occurrence of a particular sign. We’re interested in questions about modes of thought and behavior that don’t map onto individual signs in a simple one-to-one fashion.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that there’s nothing to be gained by studying shifts in vocabulary, diction, and phraseology. But I think in most cases quantitative evidence about word choice will function as a clue rather than as demonstrative proof; it may alert scholars to a change in patterns of expression, and tell them where and when to look. But to actually understand what happened, we’ll still have to read books all the way through, and study social history.

By tedunderwood

Ted Underwood is Professor of Information Sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter he is @Ted_Underwood.

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